You’re hired!. Now, starts the hard work of plotting out your career. While you are still in a learning phase, start to examine what work do you need to do to ensure growth and advancement in your UX career. In this post, I will outline a UX design career path and the things to consider as far as titles, responsibilities, and paths.
What is UX design
UX (User Experience) Design is the discipline of enhancing a product for its users by helping them solve problems and meet their needs through refining usability, accessibility, and desirability. UX design draws on a number of perspectives that make up an experience. These include but are not limited to brand, business, environment, devices, packaging, retail, customer service, and back-end systems.
To learn more about the basics, check out this article on Wikipedia. If you want to dig into the design principles that UX designers should follow, I’ve found this resource, Laws of UX helpful to align a team around design decisions.
Skills you need based off UX maturity
A lot of what a team and company will expect from you depends on their understanding of UX and the value it adds. When I started out, I worked for a few companies that concretely saw the value of effective visual design on the look of a product. As I matured in my craft, I sought out companies that looked to deepen their approach to UX. This exposed me to working with different disciplines and skillsets beyond just visual techniques.
Let us look at the specific title and skills you can adopt or focus on in your career. In his book “UX Careers Handbook,” Cory Lebson outlines the different titles and the associated skill sets. I have made an attempt to distill these down to a basic framework aligned to a company’s UX maturity.
Read more about how to understand your company’s UX maturity.
Companies with a low level of understanding of UX will often gravitate to a Visual designer first. Or they hire candidates that communicate solid visual aesthetics in their portfolios. Visual designers are the experts in combining and balancing the use of graphical elements in software. This includes but not limited to layout, typography, color, and balance. The output may translate to workflows, high fidelity mockups, clickable prototypes, and illustrations.
A company may understand that UX involves more than just the look of the product. This will lead them down to the path of hiring a UX designer to help them translate the need of their users to solutions in the product. However, the next level of maturity for a company often means they are willing to explore designs with an extended group such as PM’s (product managers) and developers in the form of wireframes. So, a UX designer will tend to spend her time communicating in low fidelity wireframes and clickable prototypes internally. A more senior UX designer can successfully push for ways of evaluating the work either with actual users (rare) or with gorilla tactics such as pop up usability studies at a coffee shop (common).
At this point, the company may still hire for UX designers and expect more output along the UX spectrum (e.g. Information architecture, wireframes, workflows, high fidelity mockups, clickable prototypes, simple evaluative studies, and illustrations).
As an organization matures in its practices, it will want to study its users. They will need some artifacts such as personas to help the company focus on snapshots of people who use their products and the conditions and scenarios as to which they will use them. At this level, most companies realize they will need to find a specialist that understands ethnographic research and best practices for designing and facilitating generative and evaluative studies. The nirvana of a UX research practice is the creation of a system that collects searchable data from past studies, conducts near-term evaluative studies on in-flight projects, and manages longitudinal studies for compounding data on users and market.
I have yet to find that research practice.
This is a relatively new role in the field and a sign that the UX team is entering a more mature phase. As the UX team grows and advocates for more specialized roles, it will start to recognize the connection between visual artifacts (regardless of fidelity) and content. I have often been in discussions late in the process about what the content on a screen should be. A UX writer will write the words the user will encounter in the product experience. The goal is to make sure that the content experience is efficient and as free of roadblocks as possible the UI.
UX design career paths
The early stages of a UX career tend to be a generalist route. Practitioners will (or should) work under a more senior UXer and approach projects that require a number of skills listed above. At some point, people grow in experience, responsibility, and expertise. This reflects your salary and title.
Technical career path
I have written the path from the perspective of software companies. There is a point where the UXer needs to specialize at the senior level. However, due to the organization of the team, the Lead will oversee multidisciplinary teams and their artifacts.
- Intern: You are here to learn. Work with the UX team, PM, and dev. Help improve internal projects. Grow your skills.
- Associate: You are getting started in your career, and you will mature your UX skills tp apply them on a focused part of the product.
- Mid-level: You solid with your process and have the ability to jump into a product initiative to own the experience with little help from more senior UXers.
- Senior: You have specialized in your craft (i.e. Visual, UX, or UX research). In the product, you have a confident grasp on key experiences from a system level, the current state, and the roadmap.
- Lead: You are responsible for managing the vision and direction of a portfolio of products. You manage the progress of multiple initiatives.
- Principal: This role has become more prevalent in recent years. For a lot of small and mid-sized companies with a more mature UX organization, this is the highest level UX position. This role is responsible for the strategy for the product or portfolio as far as research, UX initiatives, and content. A UX principal also serves as a mentor to the team.
Learn more about UX titles and salaries.
People leadership path
If you decide to move into management, consider the milestones on the path. Below is an outline of what the position could look like as far as the scope of responsibility in a small to mid-size company.
Depending on the company and the circumstances, you can become a manager as soon as you reach a more senior level. Regardless of experience, I have met competent move into the manager level quickly to fill a need of a growing team. This is not always the case with all managers. This may have lead to negative perceptions of the management track among new to industry professionals.
So you want to be a manager?
Chelsey Glasson writes in her post for Boxes and Arrows, “So you want to be a UX manager,” that most of the growth for a newly minted manager is in soft skills. A manager needs to advocate for the right conditions for the team across disciplines. This includes teams that might not understand or care about the UX process. At the same time, the manager needs to show output that makes it into the prioritized product initiatives.
This is hard even for a manager with a high functioning team. Managers also need to think like a coach. This means hard conversations that encourage and challenge the team members as a whole or individually.
If you succeed with a small team of five to seven, then you have the potential to grow into a Director role. The natural progress of a company’s UX maturity means a growing UX team. It can take many forms (i.e. embedded, centralized, or hybrid), but for simplicity, we can focus on size. More UXers need people to lead and manage them. Multiple managers should report up to a UX director.
The UX director is the head of the department for most mid-sized companies. She oversees the team growth and integrates with other disciplines. The responsibilities also address tools, processes, and career paths for the rest of the team. If the team does not have a UX principal, then this person must also be the focal point for the UX strategy.
For larger and more mature companies, UX titles reach higher into the executive ranks.
How are you evaluated
Once you know a potential path, you can start to think about how your teammates, manager, and even higher level UX officers will evaluate you. Leadership that places value on people and how we work best together should have an intentional approach to hiring, evaluating, and rewarding individual growth, impactful work, and collaborative behavior. It is a mouthful. That is because it is a lot of responsibility to direct one’s career.
Enter the 9-box-grid or 9-box-model.
Your direct manager should be able to plot the expectations for a high level of performance. Can this still be subjective? If your evaluation depends on one or two people, then the level of subjective will go up. A team that values transparency will include methods of peer review, personal reflection, and regular manager checkpoint to plot one’s performance on this grid. The results should be simple.
The top right quadrant will be promotions and raises. The bottom left quadrant will be a potential exit from the company.
Moving your career forward is a decision and an intentional activity. I learned early that my understanding, assumptions, and in some cases ignorance on company UX maturity, industry standards, performance evaluation, and career tracks were often out-of-date or incomplete. As a new or mid-level UXer, it is worth talking about these elements a team has to measure itself.
UX career advice from Neilson Norman.
Guide to the 9-box grid.
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